Ambrose Bierce

On this date in 1842, author Ambrose Bierce was born in a log cabin in Meigs County, Ohio, to Marcus Aurelius and Laura Sherwood Bierce. He left home at 15 to work as a “printer’s devil” for a newspaper. At 17 he enrolled at the Kentucky Military Institute and enlisted in the Union Army at age 19 in 1861. His Civil War experiences fed his Edgar Allan Poe-like “western Gothic” supernatural stories, numbering more than 90, which he wrote in middle age. After the war he honed his writing skills on atheistic tracts and drew a folio of political cartoons.

Bierce was hired as a journalist at several San Francisco newspapers, writing 167 weekly, satiric “Town Crier” columns later published in book form, The Fiend’s Delight (1872). Married in 1871, he and his new wife went on an extended honeymoon to England as a gift from his father-in-law. Bierce struck up friendships with the “Fleet Street Gang” and wrote for Figaro and Fun. Those columns were reprinted in book form as Cobwebs from an Empty Skull (1874).  Bierce was hired by William Randolph Hearst in 1887 and worked for him for 21 years, inaugurating a column of witty epigrams.

Vintage Bierce: “Camels and Christians receive their burdens kneeling.” “Treat things divine with marked respect — don’t have anything to do with them.” His ghost story, An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge, is still anthologized. Bierce was at the height of his fame at the turn of the century when his lobbying defeated a bill by “railroad rogues” seeking massive forgiveness of debt to the government. In 1906 The Cynic’s Word debuted, later renamed The Devil’s Dictionary. It is his most-enduring freethought work.

Bierce’s personal life was rocky, with one son dying either of suicide or during a duel, another of pneumonia in his 20s, and Bierce’s marriage ending in divorce, earning him the nickname “Bitter Bierce.” In 1913, at age 70, he told friends during a visit to Texas that he was going south and was never heard from again. Bierce reputedly fought beside Pancho Villa and died in battle, although some believe Villa killed him in a quarrel. Others maintain Bierce never went to Mexico at all. He is believed to have died in 1914. A novel speculating about Bierce’s last days, The Old Gringo, was written by Carlos Fuentes in 1985 and was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck and Jane Fonda in 1989.

Freedom From Religion Foundation